Thursday, September 10, 2009

Train Reading - Michael O'Rourke brings the Kamilaroi to life

In Train Reading - Michael O'Rourke's Kamilaroi Lands I reported on Michael O'Rourke's Lands: North-central New South Wales in the early 19th century (Michael O'Rourke, Griffith, 1977). I am now part way through Michael's third book on the Kamilaroi, "Sung for Generations": Tales of Red Kangaroo War-Leader of Gunnedah (Michael O'Rourke, Braddon 2005), the Aboriginal language group that occupied a huge sweep of Australia from the Upper Hunter north along the Western Slopes and Plains into southern Queensland. Depending on the exact boundaries, we are talking about an area of more than 80,000 square kilometres.

Very early on in my renewed research on the Aborigines of Northern New South Wales I said that I wanted to write outside the dominant frame of the last forty years, Aboriginal dispossession, white guilt, the presentation of the Aborigines as victims. Instead, I was interested in Aboriginal history, in bringing that story alive at the broader New England level. It is obviously not possible to write about Aboriginal history without dealing with the impact of European colonisation, and a sad story it is, but the story of Black-White relations is not Aboriginal history.

The brilliance of Michael's work, and I use the word brilliance advisedly, is that it brings the Kamilaroi alive, a functioning people as they were at the time of colonisation and in the eighty years of decline that follows.

This is quite a remarkable achievement.

To do this, he had to gain an understanding of their language, a language very alien to English speaking eyes. This was absolutely critical to understanding not just the way they thought, but also interpreting the records and reports, the stories, of the settlers and officials who transcribed and reported in many different ways. Then, too, he needed a detailed knowledge of the geography at a very local level, along with the patience to go through the original source material.

The third book in the series deals with Gambu Ganuurru, the pre-European Aboriginal leader immortalised in Ion Idriess's 1953 best seller, the Red Chief. The Red Kangaroo died many years before the the First Fleet arrived in 1788. His memory survives because the stories were written down while people were still alive who could remember the stories from their childhood.

Michael carefully critiques the original source material from his knowledge of the area and the Kamilaroi. He brings out the horror of the unthinking desecration of the Red Chief's grave, although this is the only reason why the story has survived. He looks at the story from the viewpoint of the role of myths and legends in other cultures. To a degree, Gambu's story reveals the society of one Aboriginal group in the same way that Homer did with the ancient Greeks. The difference is that it is clear that Gambu is a real historical figure.

I will write a proper post on Gambu in my New England story series because very few people know it. In the meantime I am wrestling with a very real problem: in telling the story of New England, how do I match the depth of Michael's work with other less well covered Aboriginal groups? I cannot. In the absence of other Michaels, there is just too much work involved. I am trying to write one book, not twenty!

Yesterday I showed the book to my Aboriginal mentee. She knows about my writing because I talk about it a fair bit and indeed has given me a book on Black writing to read. This is next on my train reading list after "Sung for Generations." She asked me when I was going to research the Yuin, the NSW South Coast language from which her family comes.

As it happened, I have looked at the Yuin recently because she is a proud Yuin woman and I wanted to know something about her people. But even to do the overview work of the type I have been doing on the New England groups is a huge task.

We really need more Michaels.                   


(Best Show)Watch said...
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Jim Belshaw said...

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